On 31st January 2013, I attended a promotion meeting for Frontline – a charity providing social work education. By then I had been a senior social work lecturer for over 10 years, was qualified in teaching Undergraduate and Postgraduate students, had written widely on the subject, been external examiner for two University social work programmes and had designed, delivered and evaluated modules in every aspect of children’s social work. In other words, I thought I knew a more than little about the job of teaching social work students to become committed, effective practitioners. As I arrived at the event, held at the prestigious building of the Boston Consulting Group in London’s Manchester Square, I thought I was at the wrong venue, a feeling exacerbated by the predominance of young white men in suits contrasting significantly with the typical motley audience of academics like myself. I remember deciding that my task for the morning was to persuade Boston Consulting Group to rethink their investment in this educational project … I could but try and stem the ravaging tide of privatisation of social work education!
I had not by then acquainted myself with the Frontline website page on Supporters which listed ‘pro bono’ support from a range of firms including: The Boston Consulting Group, The Alexander Partnership a ‘leading provider of executive coaching’, The AMV BBDO, advertising agency and the legal firm Baker and McKenzie but I had read an early IPPR proposal for Frontline which said that; Frontline would be run as a social enterprise, independent from government and employers. It would recruit top graduates, commission and quality-assure the training, and develop a network of social work champions across the profession. It would develop formal relationships with other charities and corporate supporters. The long-term objective would be to build a movement of social work leaders who could tackle social disadvantage . I was already detecting a contradiction between this proposal and the reality of Frontline’s stated independence from government and commerce. The very concept of a social work leader to address social disadvantage brought a chill to my spine.
At the meeting, the programme for Frontline social work training was presented to us by two business representatives from Morning Lane Associates, one of whom was Steve Goodman. I was unclear as to their academic teaching experience and I told the audience that the programme they presented bore not the slightest resemblance to the social work courses which I taught. I told them that I was proud that I included topics relating to social workers as activists with responsibility to pursue social and economic change, and to work towards a more equitable and fair society. In contrast, the Frontline approach seemed to be based on expecting families to change their behaviour outside of a context of poverty, homelessness, discrimination and all the many power dynamics of oppression. In a book about the Hackney model of social work (2011, p23) Goodman and Trowler wrote that, doing things differently from the mainstream is not on and of itself problematic ….. There is no one truth. Yet, an email of the Frontline summary of the January meeting had not included many of the important and valid concerns raised by the academics. In rolling out the Frontline programme across England (2016) it seems there is only one truth about what does actually constitute social work education within the Frontline course content.
In January 2013, I listened to Josh MacAlister , former school teacher and now Chief Executive of Frontline. It was to be the first of many times that I heard him speak and I groaned deeply as his version of excellence in social work was so entirely different from mine. Since then he pops up like a Jack-in-the-box at almost every conference and event I attend with the same soundbites which include so much doublespeak, requiring some decoding. Doublespeak is saying one thing and meaning another, usually its opposite. The concept derives from George Orwell’s book 1984 in which Big Brother’s statements of peace mean war and freedom mean slavery. Frontline’s language of leadership, transformation, creativity etc. is indicative of an ideology which needs to be questioned.
The values of Frontline advocate creativity yet their course content is situated in systemic theory and is designed, and delivered by organisations in the Frontline Academy which mainly support a family therapy and medically orientated focus. The term creativity (used by Munro in her presentation to Frontline students) is a classic example of doublespeak as it has been used to promote a range of private children’s social work services, support deregulation and move away from national standardisation of practice protocols. This emphasis has now culminated in Clause 15 of the Children and Social Work Bill which would enable Local Authorities to opt out of certain aspects of children’s legislation – a breach of children’s rights that would also deny children and survivors legal challenge. Andy Elvin, Board member of Frontline, criticised the British Association of Social Workers on the 6th July 2016, stating that its critique of the Bill showed BASW to be consistently reactionary on innovation and that social care was over-regulated. Also referring to the term innovation, Munro has expressed her support of this aspect of the Bill commenting that, I welcome the introduction of the power to innovate set out in the Children and Social Work Bill .. this is a critical part of the journey set out in my Independent Review of Child Protection towards a child welfare system that reflects the complexity and diversity of children’s needs. The attack on bureaucracy, which began as a critique of assessment protocols and increased managerialism, was fast developed, with very little professional opposition, into a severe and dangerous reduction in national child protection procedures. It takes us back to the mayhem of the early 80s when every authority had their own child protection protocols. Deregulation is of course an essential path to increased privatisation of services making for a simple transfer of minimal statutory responsibilities and requirements.
Should we all be overjoyed that Working Together to Safeguard Children multi agency guidance was reduced from over 700 to 70 pages? I don’t think so, because, for one reason, vast swathes of statutory guidance vanished overnight leaving us without a definition of organised abuse at a time when the horrors of Savile’s abuse of children and many other examples were just coming to light. Chapters on training, managing those who pose a risk of harm to children and how to protect particularly vulnerable children, including the protection needs of black and minority ethnic children, were all omitted. Tim Loughton MP said he would rip up the guidance – and this is in effect what he did. The well tried and tested system of the child protection register had already been abolished in 2008 on the basis of no research to indicate that it had failed to protect children.
Since 1999, child protection protocols had marginalised the joint investigation of child abuse by police and social workers and by 2013/15 the term joint investigation had gone from the Working Together to Safeguard Children guidance altogether. Police became charged with the investigation of crime and social workers with assessment of children and family needs. It was this new separation of responsibility which played a key part in the lack of protection of Peter Connolly and explained much of the lack of joint work in child sexual exploitation cases such as Rotherham and Rochdale.
Frontline values also include a need to be practical, flexible and outcome-focussed. Outcomes of course are defined by the state – for instance, an outcome to obtain employment will not include analysis of current unemployment levels and outcomes for families with regard to their children being hungry and poorly clothed, may not include the fact they may have No Recourse to Public Funds, or be disabled and denied entitlement to benefits. Outcome –focussed as a term has to be situated within a political context or it risks being oppressive and discriminatory.
Frontline states; There are thousands of inspirational social workers doing a great job. There just aren’t enough of them. Outstanding social workers can transform life chances for vulnerable children. This transformation can last a lifetime and often makes the difference between a child living in disadvantage or reaching their full potential.
I would never describe myself or my work as great or outstanding and neither would the social workers I most respect ever wish to ever be described that way. This is because they have humility – one of the most important qualities of an ethical, authentic social worker. More doublespeak. There is no outstanding social worker who can claim to be able to transform life chances for vulnerable children. There are dedicated, committed social workers who do their best against all the odds and political obstacles. Frontline describe social work as leadership because it needs people who are able to bring together a wide range of agencies, set out a vision for a family and convince them to act. Whatever happened to emancipatory social work , concepts of empowerment and service user involvement as well as words like co-ordinator and facilitator?
Frontline includes an intensive 5 week residential programme where you will be taught the knowledge and skills of good social work … these will include how to think systemically about families and relationships, how to build meaningful relationships with vulnerable and challenging people, and how to assess and work with risk. Ultimately, you will begin to learn how you bring about change in people’s behaviour.
In a two year MSc course I had time to explore student motivation and value systems in some depth but I could never have achieved this in 5 weeks. I had the privilege of teaching Inner London students who came from the communities they were serving and understood from personal experience issues of poverty, discrimination, disability, life in war torn countries and migration. Frontline students are primarily from a background of privilege and would have many more hurdles to overcome before entering practice with the most oppressed groups in society. Without teaching grounded in sociology and political theory, will they question the reason why and how they are supposed to change people’s behaviour ? Life is a rich tapestry and tolerance another key quality for a social worker. Social work can very soon become the tool of the oppressor as Walter Lorenz described in his book about the role of social work as a facilitator in the rise of Fascism in Nazi Germany (p173) The initial evaluation of Frontline stated that In-depth understanding of social science and its application has not been tested and Professor June Thoburn, East Anglia University, expressed concern that, what is missing is often the theoretical underpinning to the work. Fast-track schemes, with their focus on skills and based within workplaces, rather than lecture halls, are far closer to an apprenticeship style of education.
Frontline states that, if we want a society that is more equal, more mobile, and has people that better understand the nature of the complex challenges facing this country, we need to change assumptions in the graduate world. Instead of going into financial services, law or consulting, the basic norm should be that the best people are applying their talents to public service. In doing so, they will apply themselves to something that is socially worthwhile, develop new talents, and better both themselves and broader society. Lord Adonis, the chairman of Frontline, also believes that getting more Oxbridge graduates into the public service instead of banking or law – particularly teaching and social work – will promote social mobility and social protection.
So Frontline’s version of promoting equality is to shift the rich away from banking into social work. Isn’t this the Victorian concept of social work – lady bountiful – all over again? I mistakenly thought that concept along with the deserving and undeserving poor had long ago been consigned to history.
In promoting applications, Frontline states; 99% of us would run in the opposite direction. But if you’re part of the 1% who want to take one of Britain’s most challenging jobs, Frontline may be for you.
Sadly many of those who would have been my student group, and who are certainly not running in the opposite direction, would be screened out by Frontline as well as by their socio-economic status. Social work will surely now be less inclusive of care leavers, migrants and those who have life experience as service users.
The links on the Frontline website are significant by the omission of survivor organisations. In fact, the word survivor is missing from the literature of Frontline and of those professionals, and businesses supporting it. I always included survivor presentations in my teaching and students had to demonstrate their learning from this in their assignments. It is from hearing survivor accounts that I gained my most important knowledge of child protection.
My kind of social work is based in grassroots involvement and continual learning from the people we serve. Social workers need to intervene and exert Power Over service users in situations where protection is required but otherwise Power With service users, Power To effect social change and advocate for human rights are far more relevant than elitist concepts of leadership based on transforming and changing people’s behaviour. Amanda Thorpe’s chapter in Okitikpi’s Social Control and the use of Power provides a very useful analysis of the positive use of power in social work practice.
Government millions are going to Frontline and now also to Firstline – a management training scheme – finance which could be going to local authority children’s services, many now facing up to 50% cuts. Yet, businesses are thriving and profiting from contracts spilling out of the Frontline empire and I for one am exhausted with listening to their endlessly repetitive doublespeak.
The more I think about it the more I know I was certainly in a very wrong place in January 2013.